MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we're turning again to one of our favorite subjects - football. The nip isn't quite in the air yet in most parts of the country, but the training camps are open. The Hall of Fame Ceremony was just held and that means that football season is almost here. And if you're honest, when you think about football, you probably picture the hotshot quarterback like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Robert Griffin III. But one Hall of Famer says change your attitude, the real stars of the game these days are the wide receivers.
And yes, sometimes it's because of their antics off the field, as well as their production on it - think T.O. - Terrell Owens, or Chad Johnson, a.k.a. Ochocinco. Cris Carter played 16 seasons in the NFL. He went to eight Pro Bowls, making his name just when the game was changing for wide receivers from anonymous role players to flashy superstars. Now an analyst for ESPN, he explains how and why that transition took place, as well as the very interesting story of his own career in his new book "Going Deep: How Wide Receivers Became the Most Compelling Figures in Pro Sports." And he's with us now from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Welcome. Thank you and congratulations on being received into the Hall of Fame. That was a big day.
CRIS CARTER: Thank you. Tremendous day.
MARTIN: Have you come down off the cloud yet?
CARTER: It's just not even possible. There's so many things that - once you're in the hall, man, it's pretty overwhelming. It never ends.
MARTIN: When you started playing - I mean, you started playing when you were just eight, back in '73, was it even anywhere on your radar that this would ever happen?
CARTER: No, and I haven't really talked to a lot of people that that was their dream. I played football but I grew up a better basketball player. But when I met my high school coach, he believed I had a great potential, you know, as a wide receiver, especially in college and beyond. So he gave me a love for the game, or birthed a love for the game in me, and helped me decide to go to Ohio State. And that's what, you know, the reason why I went down the route, as far as football.
MARTIN: You say it's not a coincidence that wide receivers now sometimes have this outsized attitude. Why is that? Is there something about the position that you need to be a little wild and crazy?
CARTER: Football is a game of rhythm. Not only rhythm as far as playing the game, but there's a rhythm as far as the way the game is communicated, how you come in and out the locker room. And wide receivers, especially if they're a type A personality, they like to chitchat. They're very, very friendly. They're very social, and they're good teammates. They're good guys to have around. But they're also very, very selfish because they have to get stats for people to give them their accolade.
So they are, you know, everything for them is really predicated on getting the football. So they develop a very, very selfish attitude, or selfish people, that's the position that they gravitate to. So it's more about a personality, and then you see all these other things come out. They're showmen. They are also outspoken in the media. They do reality shows. You don't see a lot of other players doing that because the personality of a wide receiver is extremely different than most of the other players on the team.
MARTIN: And you talk a lot about Jerry Rice in the book. I mean, he's considered one of the greatest, if not one of the greatest football players, period. And some of the best...
CARTER: What football player you know better than Jerry Rice?
MARTIN: Well, exactly. But I'm saying he's not considered kind of brash and loud. And I also think about Calvin Johnson from the Lions, Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. They aren't necessarily considered kind of that wild and crazy and brash and out there. So how do they fit into the equation?
CARTER: Even though you mentioned Jerry in the same class as those guys, those guys aren't in the same class as Jerry. Like, you mentioned them, you should've took, like, eight deep breaths.
MARTIN: Point taken. Duly noted.
CARTER: And then you should've started mentioning those other guys. Now the thing that they do have similar is they are all introverts. And what we have seen is a switch from the seventies, eighties and nineties - you know, a couple of those decades where I played in - where the receivers were more outgoing. But right now, the best receivers in the NFL are introverts. And it's good to see that the best guys are totally different than the guys of the last 20 - 25 years.
MARTIN: Could Jerry Rice have been - I know you break it down in all the ways he's a great - perhaps the greatest, but would his introverted personality - would he have made it today at the level of stardom that he attained? I mean, would his play have been enough today?
CARTER: Jerry Rice was so focused. That's what made him a phenomenal player. So when you have that type of focus and that type of drive - and he was pretty good. Joe Montana, Steve Young - great system, like, you can take that on the road. That'll go in the twenties - 2020. Like, that's good anywhere.
MARTIN: But what you're saying is that you just have to have that level of talent, but with other things you've got to have the - well, you know, there's always that, is it talent or is it work ethic? Is it talent or is it attitude?
CARTER: Which one would you rather have?
MARTIN: I don't know. That's a good question. Which would you rather have? I think talent.
CARTER: Oh, you got to get the party started with some talent.
CARTER: I mean, 'cause the talent's going to give you more opportunities to get it right.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of attitude. You know there's this issue that broke just this week about the Eagle's wide receiver Riley Cooper. He's taking a leave from the team. He was caught on camera saying the N-word in a pretty nasty way at a concert. What do you make of that?
CARTER: People are a little naive in thinking that he had a chance to think that all out. Typically, about 15 seconds it takes to ruin your life. You know, to me, at 47 years old - and it's pretty well documented - you know, I have made some bad decisions. Whatever's in your heart, your mouth will say. Well, someone had sewn that into him that he felt like, in that situation, the only way to resolve it was to use that word. He going to have to deal with it. Like, he's in pro sports. Seventy percent of his teammates are the N-word, 'cause that's how they look at it. When you're in pro sports, you literally do this together. You run and train at ridiculous paces together. You eat almost every meal together. You bleed on top of each other. You protect each other. He has breached their trust, and that's going to be hard to recover from.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with football Hall of Famer Cris Carter. We are talking about is new book "Going Deep: How Wide Receivers Became the Most Compelling Figures in Pro Sports." I want to wheel back around to you. You alluded to some of the challenges that you had in your career. You talk about your own struggles with alcohol and drugs. This happened early in your career before you became a superstar. Do you think that, critical to your recovery, was the fact that you decided to face your issues, whatever your issues were, before you became a superstar?
CARTER: It has nothing to do with it. And chemical dependency has nothing to do with the amount of money you have in your pocket. It does not discriminate. Until you have that conversation and make that self commitment, 'cause you can't do this for anybody else. You can't do this for your mama. You can't do this for your wife. You got to do this for the man or the woman inside to save them.
MARTIN: You talk about the fact, though, that the Vikings - the Minnesota Vikings - at the time, that's the point in your career, which you really kind of decided to deal with yourself - they had assigned you a counselor. And you had been in counseling before, but this was the time that you decided to take it seriously. And what made that the moment for you?
CARTER: What made the point for me was I was so pissed off 'cause I had done all of the right stuff and he still cut me. You know, like, he didn't give me a chance. And then Minnesota, when they saw, OK, like, he's clean here, like, he's not using cocaine. And when they analyzed me, they're like, well, what else is he doing? And Betty was like, the only thing he's doing is drinking. And she was like, you know, can you do it for a week? I was like, yeah, ain't no a problem. Like, I'm not in love with drinking. I don't like the taste and stuff.
But hey, you know, you can't go through life without having something. Like, I said I quit everything else, why would I quit drinking. I ain't got no problem. I'm not late to work. And she just told me that, you know, I was at the early stages of being an alcoholic, being very young and strong and it hadn't caught up to me yet. And on that day, I just decided to stop it. At the end of the week she asked me how I felt. I was like, great. How you running in practice? Great. Let's try another week. Let's do it. You know, so I still sit here today just like I did that day. I'm just trying not to get me no drink today.
MARTIN: What's the critical piece here? Because a lot of people look at these young guys who get into trouble and they think, you know, what a waste And I just wonder if there's some message that you could share based on your experience on how, you know - do you understand what I'm asking?
CARTER: Yeah. The public is not going to give athletes any type of sympathy. Everyone's sitting in their living room when they see somebody screw up, they swear up and down - oh, I would've never done that. OK, really? Look back at yourself. Now they're at the youngest point and their first time having money. The take away is they're the same kids in society. Like...
MARTIN: It just gets more attention.
CARTER: Of course there's more attention. There's more money, like - but people - I mean, I'm not making excuses for athletes, but people who sit home and work 9 to 5 jobs, they will never understand. So now, because of radio and TV and Twitter and all these things, now everyone has an opinion. But you can't guarantee me - if you have my life, you can't guarantee me that when you got to the fork in the road, that you wouldn't have made the same decisions I did. But I know everyone who doesn't make it is always an expert.
MARTIN: Aren't you proud of yourself, though?
CARTER: I've never even thought about that. No one's ever asked me that question. That's like telling an athlete, hey, Cris, man, it's great, man, you're in shape. Well, really? So getting up everyday just being a good human being, like, no, I don't commend myself for that. That's what being a man is. I'm no boy no more.
MARTIN: Going back to the Hall of Fame, your induction speech, it was a very emotional speech. I felt it was. One of the things you talked about was that taking money from the agent, or Rogue Agent, and losing your final year of eligibility at Ohio State was your chief regret. Why is that?
CARTER: 'Cause you can't get those years back. That bond you made with those guys who came in with you. That now it's your senior year and it's getting ready to get paid off. Like, I altered every person's life on that team, and ultimately, the coach lost his job because I got kicked out of school. So when you have that type of impact on people, I mean, you need to say you're sorry.
MARTIN: There are those who argue that the whole system, particularly for big money sports like football and basketball, is unfair - is unfair to the players. And some people argue that either the players should be paid, they should be paid like the employees that many people believe they are, or they should get college credit in the same way that performers and musicians and ballet dancers get college credit for doing what they go to college to do. What do you think about that?
CARTER: They might give them a few more buckets of the stipends to help the parents get to the games or something like that - travel money - but they don't need to pay them. You're not supposed to get paid in society at your first jobs. You telling me you got paid as an intern when you got started?
MARTIN: I did get paid as an intern.
CARTER: OK. How much did you make?
MARTIN: I made $8,000 a year.
CARTER: Absolutely. I call that not getting paid. I play to call that being there.
CARTER: Now that's what you call an internship. That's how you gain professionalism. Now if you want to be a professional, you'll turn professional. And that internship is college. And if they happen to pass they internship, and happen to be one of the elite athletes in the world and can get to the NFL, then we should pay them. That's why we don't criticize the kids in college like we do the kids in the pros. But once I pay you, the whole ballgame changes.
MARTIN: I did want to ask you, before I let you go, about the whole question of injuries. A lot of people are starting to see the kinds of injuries that people are sustaining. And say, I don't know if I can feel good about this anymore. What do you say to that?
CARTER: I think people are ridiculous. Are there more injuries? Yes, because the kids are going harder. They're in better shape, but this is the type of business that you're going to get dinged. In NASCAR, cars get wrecked and there are fatalities, but I don't see people stop watching NASCAR. I mean, do you know in the history of football, almost a hundred years, there's only been, like, 23,000 people to have ever played in the NFL. So the ability to be special, it's going to be difficult. So one of the drawbacks when you play football, the number one rule in football is, get the guy with the ball. Hit him. Hit him as hard as you can, and that's the way the game should be played. The rules are making adjustments to prevent less concussions. So for me, as a football player, my son played football. I hope my grandkids play football, and I hope my great, great grandkids play football.
MARTIN: Well, there are pro players who have said they will not let their kids play.
CARTER: That's a ridiculous comment 'cause you wouldn't even be anybody without football. If you have the ability to get a scholarship, that's the best gift you can give to your mom and dad is the ability to pay for your college. Now the school of the arts, I guarantee they got injuries there with girls dancing. Go watch the soccer team. They got more ACL injuries than ever before.
MARTIN: I think the big particular focus is concussions, though, and people are worried that these injuries are lifelong. You don't worry?
CARTER: I think that the people in control right now are doing the absolute best they can do as far as equipment, technology and more so, information. The kids are only allowed to be on the field for three hours - that's maximum - from the time we hit the field, and that included weight training, too. The game is going to be safer. You do these stats in 20 years and tell me that they're not different than the stats of the last 20 years.
MARTIN: OK. Anymore wisdom to pass onto us?
CARTER: Man, football's a great game and I love it. And anyone who is trying to stop people from playing football is totally in contrast at everything I stand for. Football gave me a sense of identity. I love that game. It turned me from a boy into a man. And every dime I ever made has been off either talking about football or playing football.
MARTIN: Pro football Hall of Famer Cris Carter is author of the new book "Going Deep: How Wide Receivers Became the Most Compelling Figures in Pro Sports." Cris Carter, thank you so much for joining us.
CARTER: OK, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.